ALBANY, N.Y. ((DailyNews)) — The New York state Assembly will suspend its investigation of Gov. Andrew Cuomo once he steps down after its leader concluded the Legislature didn’t have the clear authority to impeach a departed official, the chamber’s top Democrat said Friday.
Cuomo announced Tuesday he planned to resign over sexual harassment allegations as it became clear he was almost certain to be impeached by the Legislature. He said his resignation was effective in 14 days, at which point he’ll be replaced by Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul.
Some lawmakers have urged the Assembly to press on with an impeachment proceeding, perhaps to bar Cuomo from holding state office in the future if he attempted a political comeback.
But Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said Friday that lawyers had advised the body’s judiciary committee that the state constitution doesn’t authorize the Legislature to impeach an elected official no longer in office.
Heastie had provided reporters a less definitive legal memorandum saying Assembly lawyers and outside counsel had concluded lawmakers “probably” lack the constitutional authority to do so, though the matter hasn’t been settled definitely.
“Let me be clear — the committee’s work over the last several months, although not complete, did uncover credible evidence in relation to allegations that have been made in reference to the governor,” said Heastie, a New York City Democrat.
He said that included evidence related to the sexual harassment claims, possible misuse of state resources in conjunction with publication of the governor’s book on the pandemic, and “improper and misleading disclosure of nursing home data.”
“This evidence — we believe — could likely have resulted in articles of impeachment had he not resigned,” Heastie said.
When asked whether lawmakers could still release a report with findings to the public as originally planned, Heastie said: “I guess it could.”
“The concern behind that is, if you’re in the middle of an investigation and other law enforcement areas are looking at this, I don’t know if we can, I don’t want to have us step on their toes while there are criminal investigations going on,” he said Friday on the news program “Capital Tonight.”
Heastie didn’t explain how releasing a committee report could interfere with independent law enforcement investigations. He has previously said that he’s asked the committee to turn over evidence it had gathered “to the relevant investigatory authorities.”
Heastie denied that he had reached any deal with Cuomo to let him resign without facing an impeachment trial or investigation.
“There was no deal,” Heastie said. “I’ve said that 150 times and I’ll make that the 151st time.”
Cuomo’s office and his lawyer, Rita Glavin, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The first woman to publicly accuse Cuomo of misconduct, Lindsey Boylan, called the Assembly leadership’s decision to call off its separate investigation “an unjust cop out.”
“The public deserves to know the extent of the Governor’s misdeeds and possible crimes. His victims deserve justice and to know he will not be able harm others,” she tweeted.
Since March, outside lawyers have been helping the Assembly conduct a wide-ranging investigation on whether there were grounds to impeach Cuomo. The announcement that the inquiry would cease came on a day the Assembly had initially set as a deadline for Cuomo’s legal team to respond with any additional evidence refuting the allegations against him.
Cuomo faces ongoing probes from the state attorney general over his $5 million book deal and from federal prosecutors, who are scrutinizing his handling of nursing home deaths data. The state’s ethics commissioners, who could levy fines against Cuomo, are also looking into similar issues.
Heastie also cited “active investigations” by county district attorneys in Manhattan, Albany, Westchester, Nassau and Oswego concerning incidents of alleged sexual harassment by Cuomo. Several women have said the governor inappropriately touched them, including an aide who said he groped her breast.
Several committee members said Heastie’s announcement took them by surprise.
Assembly Judiciary Committee Chair Charles Lavine, a Democrat, said Heastie alone made the decision to suspend the impeachment investigation.
Committee members were split in their reaction with some like Assemblymember David Weprin, also a Democrat, saying an impeachment trial would have been a “tremendous waste of government resources.” Latrice Walker, a Democrat, told NY1 on Tuesday that lawmakers have more important work to do than focus on Cuomo’s “future career choices.”
But others objected to the end of the Legislature’s probe. Assemblymember Tom Abinanti, a Westchester Democrat on the committee, called the decision “premature.”
“The governor has not even left office,” he said. “The committee should continue to meet and issue a public report to the people on the extensive investigation that the committee and its attorneys have conducted to date.”
The Republican Minority Leader in the Assembly, Will Barclay, called it “a massive disservice to the goals of transparency and accountability.”
The Assembly’s probe has already cost taxpayers at least $1.2 million, according to Lavine.
All six Republicans and nine out of 15 Democrats on the committee said the Assembly should at least release a public report on the findings of the impeachment investigation.
Lavine said he will be consulting with committee members about whether to do so, and will decide once Cuomo resigns.
“That’s something I’m going to give full consideration to,” Lavine said. “I expect there will be a full report.”
Legal experts this week said they had questions over both the legality and practicality of trying to impeach Cuomo after he’d already left office.
Ross Garber, an attorney who’s represented four recent U.S. governors facing impeachment proceedings in their respective states, had told The Associated Press his reading of state law is that a person must be in office at the time of impeachment.
Richard Rifkin, an attorney who’s worked in state government for 40 years, including in the attorney general’s office and as special counsel to former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, said the language in the state Constitution on impeachment was “really quite vague” and that there wasn’t definitive precedent saying whether impeachment could continue after Cuomo left office.
Attribution on a quote in this story has been corrected to reflect that it was said by Heastie, not Judiciary Committee Chair Charles Lavine. The story has also been corrected to reflect that federal, not state, prosecutors are investigating the handling of nursing home data.